Importance of Shutter Speed

The importance of shutter speed is something that we can sometimes undervalue by attempting to use ISO values that are too low when creating photographs. We may read articles or view videos that are adamant that we should always shoot at low ISO values. While this can be appropriate in specific situations, using a low ISO and sacrificing shutter speed as a trade-off, can be problematic.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Deirbhile’s Twist, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

Obviously photographing stationery subjects is a scenario when using the lowest possible ISO can be a good idea, as this helps maximize the available dynamic range and colour depth of our camera’s sensor. Without any subject movement there is no risk of motion blur other than what may be caused by a photographer’s handholding technique.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS @ 24 mm, efov 48 mm, f/5.6, 4 sec, ISO-200

Still life subjects can regularly be shot at base ISO handheld, or with the assistance of a tripod when necessary. Very slow shutter speeds can routinely be used in combination with base ISO values in this type of situation. As long as the photographer’s handholding skill and camera gear’s IBIS¬† performance allow. I like to think of still life images as ‘no brainer’ opportunities. Most of us do not make a steady diet of still life photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/5.6, 1/2 second, ISO-200

In many instances landscape images can be captured at base ISO using fairly slow shutter speeds if there is little to no movement in the composition. We need to be intensely aware of our environment in these situations to ensure an appropriate shutter speed. Often a landscape image capture needs to be timed in between slight breezes.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, 1/10, f/5.6, ISO-200

It is critical that a photographer considers the amount of movement in a scene, as well as the effectiveness of their handholding technique, and the IBIS (in body image stabilization) or VR (vibration reduction) technology resident in their camera gear. Under very calm conditions slower shutter speeds can be used even when photographing in forests and other environments that are very sensitive to breezes.

Belleek Castle Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/3.5, 1/15, ISO-3200,

Every photographer has their own approach when it comes to choosing their shutter speed, lens focal length, aperture and ISO value for specific photographic situations. For me, the ISO value that I use is always the least important factor with my photography.

Belvedere House Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 13 mm, efov 35 mm, f/5.6, 0.8 seconds handheld, ISO-3200

My priority is always to get the right combination of focal length, aperture, and distance to subject, to create the composition and depth-of-field that I want. Since I virtually always shoot handheld, my next consideration is selecting the correct shutter speed given the camera gear that I’m using, and the amount of subject movement in the composition.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, efov 14 mm, f/4, 5 seconds handheld, ISO-200

Knowing our individual handheld shutter speed limits based on lens, focal length, and camera body is critical. Ongoing handheld practice can pay a lot of dividends.

Belleek Castle Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/3.5, 1/30, ISO-3200

My final consideration is ISO value. The main determinant here is to get an appropriate exposure for my photograph based on my creative intent. Our relative comfort working with higher ISO value files in post comes into play when deciding on camera settings for a particular image. For example I never hesitated shooting my Nikon 1 gear up to ISO-3200.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/400, ISO-16000, subject distance 2.3 metres
E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/400, ISO-16000, subject distance 2.3 metres, 100% crop

I’ve found that I can push my Olympus M4/3 files further and don’t hesitate to regularly go up to ISO-6400, and sometimes higher… although I seldom go beyond ISO-16000.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/40, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 515 mm

Leveraging computational photography technologies available with our cameras can also impact our choice of shutter speed. For example, we may be able to use a more open aperture like f/4 and get our desired depth-of-field by utilizing in-camera focus stacking. This technology, in combination with IBIS performance, may allow us to choose an easy-to-use shutter speed of 1/40 and still shoot at base ISO. This can help avoid a potentially soft image by using a too slow shutter speed if our lens had been stopped down to f/8 or f/11 to create the desired depth-of-field.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 12-100 mm f/4 IS PRO @54 mm, efov 108 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-5000, Hand-held Hi Res Mode

Other computational photography technologies like Handheld Hi Res may allow us to shoot at higher ISO values like ISO-5000 or ISO-6400 with minimal noise and loss of dynamic range. Again, the key is to use the right shutter speed for the technology being employed and the subject being photographed.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 285 mm, efov 570 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-16000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3718 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.1 metres

As photographers we will be faced with situations where we need to push our camera settings in order to get a useable image… or not get any image at all. Rather than underexpose an action-oriented image to maintain a particular ISO value, I would much rather get a good, balanced exposure… even if I have to push my ISO setting. The images above and below were both captured handheld through my kitchen window at ISO-16000.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-16000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4153 pixels on the width, subject distance 7.2 metres

Regardless of the camera system used, I’ve never liked the results when I’ve tried to significantly lift underexposed, shadow areas in a photograph in post. In my experience dealing with noise in post is much easier when an image has been properly exposed rather than underexposed.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/3.5, 1/200, ISO-10000, subject distance 2.7 metres

In some situations a photographer may choose to purposely expose to the right (ETTR) with a particular photograph.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 300 mm, Handheld Hi Res Mode

Advancements with AI in various photographic software programs also allow for improved high ISO results. This technology makes using an appropriate shutter speed in low light conditions less concerning for many photographers.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5.6, 1/500, ISO-6400, subject distance 2.2 metres
E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5.6, 1/500, ISO-6400, subject distance 2.2 metres, 100% crop

When working with photography coaching clients, I’ve found the most common reason for soft images is them trying to keep their ISO low, while using a shutter speed that was too slow for the situation.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, 1/60, f/5.6, ISO-6400, subject distance 1.4 metres

At the end of the day, when faced with having to choose between shutter speed and ISO value… shutter speed will win out with me every time.

 Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Image 8 was created from an out-of-camera jpeg. All other images were produced from RAW files using my standard process in post. This is the 1,332article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, 1/400, f/5.6, ISO-4000, subject distance 990 mm

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